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As expected, the U.S. Air Force on Tuesday declared its new F-35 at Hill Air Force Base "combat ready."
Hill's 34th Fighter Squadron is the first F-35 unit in the Air Force to receive the declaration. Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, made the announcement at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia.
In a prepared statement, Carlisle said the F-35A, the Air Force version of the aircraft, and the 34th Fighter Squadron have met all the criteria for what the Air Force calls "initial operational capability." That criteria includes enough pilots and support personnel trained and equipped to have 12 to 24 jets capable of attacking targets on the ground and in the air.
"The F-35A will be the most dominant aircraft in our inventory, because it can go where our legacy aircraft cannot and provide the capabilities our commanders need on the modern battlefield," Carlisle said in the statement.
Despite the announcement, the F-35As are unlikely to fly into combat until at least 2019, when Hill and the Air Force are expected to have 72 of the jets fully equipped and staffed.
Dan Grazier, the Jack Shanahan Fellow at the Project On Government Oversight in Washington, D.C. and a critic of the F-35 program, on Tuesday said if the F-35As were really ready to fight, the Air Force would have added fanfare to the announcement.
"I think they generally know that this is a pretty shallow stunt," Grazier said. "They didn't try to make a big deal about it."
He pointed out that the Marine Corps declared its version of the F-35 combat ready a year ago. Yet no deployment is planned for at least a year, Grazier said.
"If these planes are so good and have so many capabilities, why aren't we using them in combat?" he asked.
At Mountain Home, the F-35s were able to evade radar detection, the officers said. The F-35As' computers, which has been a problem for years, are allowing pilots to perform all the necessary combat functions, they said.
"Our airmen have worked tirelessly to make sure our aircraft are combat ready: meeting challenges head-on and completing all the required milestones," said Col. David Lyons, commander of the 388th Fighter Wing, which oversees the 34th Fighter Squadron. "We're very proud that the Air Force has declared us combat ready and we're prepared to take this aircraft wherever it's needed in support of our national defense."
While the Marine Corps has declared its F-35s ready for combat, a Navy version is farther behind.
All three versions of the F-35 are years behind schedule and are considered the first trillion dollar weapons system in history.